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# Wednesday, 14 January 2009
Finding Incarcerated Ancestors
Posted by Diane

Q. My mother told us repeatedly that she thought our paternal grandfather spent time in various jails and/or prisons in the Deep South. Is there any way to track criminal incarcerations in first quarter of the 20th century without going to each individual district?

A. I don't know of any comprehensive prison indexes, though you can find a few records from individual institutions online. See Ancestor Hunt for a list. (I haven’t clicked all those links—some may go to pay sites.)

Decennial US censuses typically enumerated prisons and other institutions (you’ll see the institution’s name at the top of the return), so search for your ancestor’s name in censuses during his lifetime. Note that not everyone listed in censuses as “inmate” was in prison—people in orphanages and hospitals sometimes were called inmates.

You also could run searches of various online newspaper indexes to see if your grandfather’s name turns up in crime-related coverage.

Do you know the places he lived? If so, you could always run place searches of the Family History Library catalog to see whether it has any microfilmed prison records from those counties or states, then rent the film through a Family History Center near you. Search state archives’ Web sites and catalogs, too, as state prison records would likely be with the archives.

But it sounds like you’re taking a shot in the dark. Without a more-specific idea of when and where your grandfather may have served time, renting all that film will be time-consuming and expensive.

Aside from checking censuses and using the easily accessible online indexes mentioned above on the off chance you'll find something, your best bet is to continue your general research of your great-grandfather and other relatives. Keep your eyes open for clues. Ask cousins whether they've heard anything about your grandfather being incarcerated.

For example, my family had a similar story about my great-grandfather, and only when I got his son’s orphanage application (it mentioned the state penitentiary) did I learn when and where he was imprisoned, and where I needed to look for records.

black sheep ancestors | institutional records
Wednesday, 14 January 2009 16:46:40 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [2]
Thursday, 15 January 2009 18:48:07 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I have been working on a murder case that took place in 1917 in Santa Barbara County, California, following the trial almost daily in the newspapers, and knew the man who committed the crime received a life sentence. However, when I checked the CA. death index I saw he died in Paso Robles and not in prison. I worked with someone on RAOGK (Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness) in San Luis Obispo County and obtained his obituary where it listed a wife and step children. With that knowledge, I wanted to try to locate a prison record but did not know where to look. I decided to contact the California State Archives and discovered that their library had in fact many of San Quentin's old prison records and did a search for me. The result was awsome! I received 399 pages of this man's record at $.25 a page which was well worth the cost. Half of the pages was the trial transcript that I found very informative; the rest of the pages dealt with several letters from friends and relatives who asked for a pardon.
I also went down to the local courthouse and spent 3 hours pouring over the pre-trial of the murder and again purchased around a 100 pages, and this time there were copies of letters introduced as evidence that were most telling.
So, I find that whenver in doubt, do contact a state archives facility first as you might be surprised. Good luck.

Mary Mamalakis
Mary Mamalakis
Thursday, 15 January 2009 19:11:54 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
It was rumored that my g.grandfather was in prison somewhere in West Virginia. When the 1930 census was released I found him enumerated in the WV State Penitentiary.
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